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Coronavirus

Philippines tightens Manila lockdown amid 'losing' virus battle

Medical community warns that health care system is 'overwhelmed'

Passengers wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing wait to board a train in Quezon City on July 21.   © Reuters

MANILA -- The Philippine capital will reimpose stricter quarantine restrictions for two weeks beginning Tuesday after the local medical community warned the country is waging a "losing battle" against COVID-19.

President Rodrigo Duterte approved a task force proposal late Sunday to place Metro Manila and nearby provinces under "modified enhanced community quarantine" from Aug. 4 to Aug. 18, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said.

The capital has been responsible for the nationwide spike in coronavirus infections since lockdown restrictions were eased on June 1. On Sunday, the country reported its fourth consecutive day of record daily infections, with 5,032 new cases. This brought the total to 103,185, the second-highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

According to Nikkei research, COVID-19 infections are increasing by about 70% in Asia and Oceania. Moreover, 19 countries and regions in the area have tightened movement restrictions or lockdowns.

Conversely, Indonesia's resort island of Bali started reopening for domestic tourists on Friday, even as the capital Jakarta extends its partial restrictions on movement.

Under the renewed policy, public transportation in Manila will be suspended, while businesses such as manufacturing and retail shops will be allowed to operate at under 50% capacity. Strict stay-at-home orders will be reimposed.

The new measure was decided during a meeting that followed the medical community calling for a two-week "time out" to improve pandemic control strategies.

"Health care workers are united in sounding off a distress signal to the nation. Our health care system has been overwhelmed," said Philippine College of Physicians President Mario Panaligan in a letter to Duterte on Aug. 1. His call was backed by dozens of other local medical groups.

"We are waging a losing battle against COVID-19 and we need to draw up a consolidated, definitive plan of action," Panaligan added.

Two large government hospitals in Manila have announced temporary closures while others said they will stop accepting patients after their COVID-19 wards filled up.

Duterte approved on Sunday the hiring of 10,000 medical professionals, as well as additional benefits for medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients, including higher allowances and more robust life insurance.

Roque rejected calls on Saturday by medical groups for a return to "enhanced community quarantine" -- the strict lockdown imposed from March to May -- stressing "the delicate balancing act between public health and economic health." Manila and nearby provinces make up 67% of the economy, he said.

The Philippines is bracing for its worst economic downturn in three decades due to the pandemic. The economy shrank 0.2% in the first quarter. On Thursday, the government is expected to confirm a technical recession with the announcement of second-quarter gross domestic product figures.

The stricter lockdown measures could derail hopes for a recovery in the third quarter, an economist said.

"With the economic growth engine crippled, the continued spread of the virus weighs on any hopes of a recovery," said ING Bank Manila senior economist Nicholas Antonio Mapa, adding that "repeated returns to lockdowns will eventually take its toll, both on the economy and the fiscal position of the Philippines."

The Philippine Stock Exchange index fell 3.8% on Monday morning.

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